This is the fifth in a series of posts featuring some women’s experience with natural family planning.  The previous four can be read here, here, here, and here.  For the post that originally inspired this project, click here.  To read about the purpose of and rules for this project, click here.

GS’s Story

What a relief it is to discover that there is a place that Catholics can come and share their real-life experiences with NFP without fear of getting a public internet pounding, conservative-Catholic style.

Brief history: I grew up in a very orthodox, very authoritarian Catholic home.  My husband’s family was also ultra-orthodox (particularly his mother), but not quite so authoritarian about it.  We both went to one of those small, very orthodox Catholic colleges dedicated to the study of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, etc.  We fell in love and married in our early/mid twenties (both virgins in every sense of the word) and just figured we would accept children as they came, because that is what we had been raised to believe was our duty as Catholics.

We did try an early method of symptothermal NFP (it wasn’t CCL–I honestly can’t remember the name of the method) in the early months of our marriage, not to delay pregnancy, but just to learn about my body.  We quickly tossed the thermometer because I am a bad sleeper at best, and being woken up every morning at the same time to check my temp was really disrupting my sleep.

I became pregnant when we had been married nearly 11 months.  The baby was born, I was depressed and stressed out in ways I never thought possible (let’s just say the ole natural maternal instincts that were supposed to magically kick in pretty much never did—even decades later! but that’s another story), but also certain I would not get pregnant right away because it had taken me nearly a year to get pregnant without using anything, and now I had a baby nursing on me constantly.

How naive.

#1 was six months old when I became pregnant with #2.  After #2, even more depressed and stressed out, I decided it was time for real NFP.  We signed up for Couple-to-Couple classes.  The couple teaching it was odd, to put it charitably.  And it felt beyond odd to discuss my cervical mucus with a man that was so socially off-kilter in the first place. But I was determined to make it work.  I woke up every day to check my temp (becoming more exhausted by the day), checked mucus just as I was supposed to, and my chart was a mess because I always had fertile mucus.

After several meetings, the CCL husband looked at my jagged-tooth chart, looked back up at me and said, “There have been times when my wife and I have had to go 6 months or more without making love due to confusing signs”.

My husband and I left that class, tossed the charts, and were pregnant again within three weeks.  I miscarried.  Six months later, we were pregnant again.  I miscarried.  This time the doctor told me to wait at least 6 months to get pregnant again (I had had a D&C and part of the tissue looked like it could be molar in nature).  We went to a Creighton teacher and learned a new method of NFP.  We worked very closely with the Creighton teacher to try to get a handle on my charts, but they were always a mess.  Somehow we winged it through the six months.  The day my MD gave me the all-clear six months later, we decided to ignore the chart because we just really, really needed to be close to each other after all that abstinence.  I am nearly certain I conceived that very night.

That pregnancy was uneventful, but after the baby was born, we were going through a really tough time financially, and postpartum depression was again an issue.  I was trying to read my signs the best I could, breastfeeding constantly, and we were going through the stress of a cross-country move we could not afford in  any way, shape, or form, for a job that was not going to support our family anyway, so I was going to need to go out and get a job.  Halfway through the move, I discovered I was pregnant with #4 (#3 was just over three months old).  I laughed hysterically; what else was there to do?  My pregnancy with #4 was stressful but relatively uneventful.

We hit rock bottom financially and ended up homeless the next summer, living with a relative 1000 miles away from where my husband was working.  It was hard, with a newborn and three other children, the oldest not yet five.  We secured low-income housing near my husband’s work, and I went back to school, this time for a degree that would actually give me a marketable skill.

We were on WIC, and I was determined not to become pregnant again because I needed to get that degree to get us out of the low-income housing.  Our kids were being exposed to things we never wanted them to be.  We worked with another Creighton teacher and abstained for long periods.  One particularly long cycle, we had abstained for six weeks, and I was certain we were finally safe.  We made love that night, and—surprise!–two weeks later I had a positive pregnancy test.  I cried for two days straight.

Several weeks later, I miscarried.  I felt nothing but relief and joy—and guilt and sadness for feeling that way.  I spoke to our priest about how guilty I felt for being so happy to have miscarried; he was very pastoral and comforting and assured me we can’t help our feelings.  I resolved never again to get pregnant in a situation in which my reaction to a miscarriage would be relief and joy.

For the next couple of years, we worked with the Creighton teacher.  I was diagnosed with a very serious chronic incurable disease; it was very important not to get pregnant while I was on certain medications.  Periods of abstinence were long.  The charts remained a mystery at best.  Yellow stamps, the solution everybody swore would end my NFP woes, didn’t help.  We would resort to other means of being sexually close while going through periods of abstinence.  I was racked with guilt until I could get to confession, as I am scrupulous by nature.

Some nights I was sleepless over it, yet I needed to be close to my husband.  And he needed to be close to me.

I worked while I was going to school.  Just over two years after delivering #4, I became pregnant with #5.  It really threw a wrench into my schooling, as it meant I would have to be doing clinicals and going back to class when the baby was just a week old.  A relative came up to stay for several weeks, and my husband was able to take the baby to work with him on my clinical days, so we managed to pull off the remaining six weeks of class, but it took a huge toll on my  health.  By the end of the summer break, I landed in the hospital for a week.  I managed to get through my senior year without any more hospitalizations, but was nearly hospitalized again right around graduation.

I began a lucrative career, regained my health slowly, and continued to use NFP but always with long periods of abstinence and frequent falls into “sin” with my husband.  I became increasingly frustrated and angry with God and the Church.  I felt used by NFP (never by my husband, who had done his level best to help with all the charting and angst of NFP all those years), only able to make love when it felt least good to me.  I almost left the Church at one point, which devastated my husband.  But I had grown up squarely in the school of, “If you are going to be a Catholic in Name Only—which, of course, anybody who doesn’t follow the Church’s teaching on NFP and married sex is–get out of the Church”.

I just found it harder and harder to believe that the life we were living as a couple was the kind of life God intended for couples to live.

Another pregnancy happened, and I miscarred again.  I wasn’t relieved, but I certainly wasn’t devastated, either.  It was the earliest miscarriage I ever experienced (happened just a few days after I missed my period).  We remained in an ambivalent state about whether we should have more children.  I was in better health than I had been in a while.  About a year later (still limping through with messed-up charts and “sinful” activity together, followed by being racked with guilt until confession), I became pregnant with #6.  It was a rough pregnancy.  I gained a huge amount of weight (due to the meds I was on to control my disease) and ended up on bedrest.  The baby was born two weeks early and was healthy, but really scrawny.  My body just had nothing left to give the poor little thing.

After #6 was born, my husband—who had never, ever in all our years of marriage suggested using any form of artificial contraception–told me he was going to have a vasectomy.  I was shocked.  I told him he needed to be very, very sure.  That I would NEVER ask him to do such a thing.  But that I also was afraid to have a tubal ligation because of my health problems and because if a tubal fails, I could end up with an ectopic pregnancy, and I would morally have a hard time with the thought of a baby of ours not being able to grow to term and having to be removed from my body because of something I had done to my body by choice.  He was sure, and I felt nothing but gratitude to him and awe that he loved me enough to do something that was clearly a sacrifice to him.  He told me enough was enough; he had seen the damage and the toll all those pregnancies had taken on me, both physically and psychologically, and that God had blessed us with six healthy children for which he was eternally grateful.

I cried the night before he had it done.  It was so final.  I asked him repeatedly if he was sure, absolutely sure, that I didn’t want him to ever feel pressured or forced into it in any way.  We talked about the morality of it.  He basically decided he would do it, he would confess it, and it would be a done deal.  Isn’t that the sin of presumption?  He said it was simply being hopeful in the mercy and understanding of an ever-loving God.  He went through with it.  We both confessed it—I was completely and totally honest with the priest, told him the only reason I had any real contrition for it was that I was afraid of burning for all eternity.  He absolved me anyway and told me to be at peace.

Our marriage has always been strong, but it has only gotten stronger in the years since my husband’s procedure.  No longer do I feel like a science experiment.  No longer do I feel like I can only have intercourse when it feels the least good for me.  That if I have it when it feels out-of-this-world-fantastic, I had better be prepared to pay the price of a pregnancy for the experience.

I can’t speak for other women, but I am not nearly as orgasmic when I am not fertile as when I am.

Sex has never been about the orgasm for me, and I could honestly live my life without having another (not that I would WANT to, mind you!! but I could do it), but I could not live my life without the absolute soul-melding kind of experience I have when making love to my husband during the fertile times.  It’s a very different experience for me than making love during non-fertile times.  It’s a totally melting of myself into him.

Oh, we tried all sorts of things when doing NFP to make that happen when not fertile, but none of it mattered.  When I am not fertile, I have to really fight the urge to make a list of to-do for the next day in my head while my husband is getting physical with me (and I manage to win the fight and get in the mood eventually!), but when I am fertile I am completely into the entire sensual love-making experience, loving every erotic second of it.  It makes me feel just entirely united to him, that we truly melt into one.  And how he loves it when I am that way!

I personally feel that not enough attention has been paid to the female sexual experience.  It seems to me that in the Catholic understanding of sex—penis in the vagina for ejaculation—the female sexual experience is really rather inconsequential.  So what if the woman can’t ever make love when it feels best to her ever again in her entire life.  Suck it up and quite your whining about it.  Be glad you can have sex ever.  And better be ready to pay that debt whenever your husband wants it lest you contribute to his sin.

Because of the circles I grew up in and still live in, I know many, many couples  practicing NFP.  The vast majority are not very happy, and many will say behind closed doors that it has been a real strain on their marriage.   Several orthodox Catholic married women have admitted to me that they don’t really like sex much in the first place (which seems to me to indicate a whole other level of problems in the relationship), and I have to wonder if it is because they can’t really have sex when it feels great to them (most of the women my age now have more children than I do and many have health or financial issues that make another pregnancy a real stress in their lives) and when they are infertile, they feel pressured to perform because they husbands are pretty desperate by that point in their cycle.  I know from experience how used that can make you feel, even when you have a great husband you KNOW would never consciously use you in any way, shape, or form.

I have also noticed that some of these women really seem to think poorly of their husbands’ sexual drives.  If a man so much as commits one sexual sin, they are convinced their husbands are addicted to masturbation or porn and that they are using them for their own pleasure.  I’ve known some of these guys for more than two decades, and some of them are really good men, and it’s sad to me that their wives view them that way because maybe they checked out a magazine they shouldn’t have one day in a moment of sexual starvation and weakness.

I’m not saying it’s okay, but I also don’t think it means a man is nothing more than a sexual monster.  It seems to me there is a rampant fear among Catholic couples, a fear of somehow “using” each other sexually.  I’m not saying it can’t happen, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t have an awareness of the possibility of it, but I do think that all this emphasis on how contraceptives or “using NFP with a contraceptive mentality” turn us into objects to our spouses has really warped the perspective of a lot of Catholic couples I know.  My husband would die before he would use me as an object, and I don’t speak with hyperbole on that one.  He has an immense amount of respect for me and would lay down his very life for me in a heartbeat.

Another observation: many of these very same couples would sing the praises of NFP to an outsider, that it does wonders for marriage, and that it is so much better than contraceptives.  It’s not that they would intend to lie, or even believe they were really lying.  It’s just that this JPII generation, this generation raised post-Vatican II and raised in a Catholicism reactionary to the Council, knows the importance of being a good example to the rest of the sinners of the world.  To lead others into sin by admitting how awful NFP has been for us (thus giving people an excuse to use contraceptives themselves) would rest very heavily upon our souls.

And so orthodox Catholic couples raised on the teachings of Humanae Vitae are often very inauthentic in their living out of the Catholic notion of marriage and NFP.  And the general public can sense the inauthenticity, and for this reason I don’t believe the general public is in any danger of converting to the “joys” of NFP married life any time in the near future.

I’d like to add that I actually love the concept of NFP–the healthiness of it, the crunchiness of it, the idea of a woman being in total control of her fertility through mere knowledge of her cycle.  Where it all fell down for me was in the practice of it.  I have nothing but admiration for those couples who really do love NFP and find it wonderful and healthy for their relationships.  I wanted and planned to be just like them!  But I failed utterly in that department and will have to face God for it on judgment day.

I remain on the fence about Church teaching in this regard.  I don’t know if it is right or wrong—I am exhausted at the thought of trying to figure it all out.  All I know is how much strain–and even damage–following the teaching caused in our marriage.  And I see how the contraception issue has divided Catholics in a really harmful way.  In my own personal life, I have found that those who don’t contracept are mightily judgmental of those who do.  I used to be that way.  For me, a lot of it was sour grapes, so I suspect that might be the case for at least some others.  It’s a real drag to follow the Church teaching and be miserable for it.  We have not told any of our Catholic friends or family about my husband’s procedure—we would be very much looked down upon for our sinfulness—and it would probably really tick everybody off because we have been blessed with a remarkably happy marriage.

When there is such dissonance between what the Church teaches we will experience following her teachings on sexuality and NFP and what many couples actually do experience when they have tried their level best and given it their all for many, many years, is it really any wonder so many abandon the teaching altogether and throw themselves upon the mercy of God, hoping and praying we won’t burn for eternity for wanting to be close to our spouses?

11 thoughts

  1. I’m so grateful to these women who are sharing their experiences. What couples are being put through is shameful and destructive. I wish GS, her dear husband, and all her family, a future of happiness, health and peace.

  2. Thanks for this incredibly powerful testimony, GS.

    I think you are absolutely right about the Church ignoring the female experience of sex. The moral center of the act in the minds of the Church is definitely the “passive” reception of the “active” ejaculation. I think JPII has some line about female orgasm in Love and Responsibility but, well, I don’t think one line tacked on to an entire body of reasoning does much to change the androcentric viewpoint of the Church’s teaching on this.

    So when I got to that line in your post, I yelled out, “YES!! EXACTLY!!!”

    I guess I was just surprised how little the Church’s description of sex really matched up with my married experience of it, as well.

    May God bless you and your husband!

  3. To GS:

    I thank you for sharing your experience with us. I was quite moved by the struggles to live out an authentic and moral life and to be true to who you and your husband are as a living and loving couple. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

    May our Church be moved by the wisdom that shines forth from your experience, your words and your heart.

    Deepest peace.

  4. Amen sister! I think that you are absolutely right about the Church’s teaching as it relates to female sexuality and that it is essentially unavoidable as long as it is ultimately left up to celibate men.

    I have always felt that the idea that contraception is a slippery slope to couples (men) using each other (women) for sex is a a very, very weak post hoc justification. I think it is a bit insulting, particularly to men, to imply that the only thing that keeps lustful behavior in check is the possibility of procreation. At best, it is a uni-dimensional understanding of the marital relationship. I also do not understand how NFP is supposed to be the (magic bullet) solution to this, especially if the wife has to take primary or sole responsibility for tracking her fertility (yes, the ideal is that he participates in the charting, etc. but that is often contrived if not impractical — I am imaging texting my husband the grocery list and the quantity and quality of my cervical mucus, I’ll pass).

    I feel blessed that my parents were very much a Vatican II couple. Though they were very clear about the purpose of sex, the overall focus of their teaching on morality was to focus on what promotes love rather than what are the rules. In fact, my very devout father regularly pointed out that the where the Pharisees failed is that they approached their relationship with God legalistically rather than lovingly. That is why I have such a problem with the current teaching of NFP because I think it unintentionally promotes a legalistic approach to sexuality — particularly harmful in the context of a marriage which cannot be healthy and life-giving and legalistic — and division within the Body of Christ, as you noted, GS.

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

  5. I want to thank you, GS, and the other women who shared, as well as the authors of WIT for this series. I also grew up in a very pro-NFP household, and have long held deep-seated misgivings about the use birth control. These stories have deeply challenged assumptions I made about the nature of sex and marriage (as a young, single woman, I am now wondering how I could have been so presumptuous), and given me a lot to reflect on and pray about. That the lived experience of women is so often ignored is something I frequently bring up in my own theological writing; that I myself was neglecting lived experience is distressing and incriminating. Such a sharing of women’s voices and stories is a critically important task, and I commend WIT for taking it on. So, again, thanks to all for sharing your experiences — it has meant a great deal to me.

  6. There are not enough thanks in the world for sharing your story. I will keep you and your husband in my prayers, your whole family. I married at 49, I was away from church for a long, long time… I have no experience like your own. This is why I always feel like everyone who grows pedantic about NFP, without reference of actual lives such as your own.

    Thank you.

  7. This real experience is heart rending indeed ! When the Pope issued Humanae Vitae he INSTRUCTED (= ORDERED) the monsignor, presenting it to the press, to say that it was NOT an infallible document. Why is this instruction left out nowadays ?
    My advise: I suggest: ask every priest, you encounter in this matter, to please, furnish you with the NUMBER in DENZINGER which condemns mechanical contraception as sinful. It is definitely NOT in Denzinger as infallible and probably also not as ordinary teaching. Bottom line: the condemnation is not there !

  8. Thank you. I cannot thank you and the other contributors for this. After years of paralyzing terror at the prospect of pregnancy and some very unsatisfying sex, I did a great deal of research and found to my shock that copper IUDs have been recently found to /not/ inhibit implantation. I can’t take hormones due to severe neurological issues, and I’m allergic to latex, lube, and spermicide. Fun. My husband only wants it when I’m fertile – he doesn’t see the chart, his libido just jumps on it. Like you, I only feel desire when I’m in my fertile periods, and apart from that, sex is a duty chore.

    The worst part is that if I were to be pregnant – not have a child, but be pregnant – it could very well end my career. I’m fresh out of grad school and competing for each job with hundreds of applicants, and have been actively discriminated against because people assume a married woman will just run off and have babies the minute they hire her. (Can you blame us? We get out of grad school in our 30s.) I have to be available for certain conventions and travel, and if I were due during these ‘blackout’ periods, all the hard work of my 20s would be for nothing and I’d lose a profession I love.

    I’m a convert, so getting the IUD felt a little like I was backing out of a deal I made when I chose the Church. I felt that because I actively chose to be Catholic, I had to toe the party line. But research has led me to understand that intent trumps method, so long as life is preserved and dignity is kept. Finally, I can make love with my husband when we both want to, but the price of that closeness is not a baby whose birth would have major and dire consequences for me and my health.

    Copernicus was once decried for contradicting the Church, but the Church came to see in time that he was right. I would hate to sacrifice myself on the altar of a teaching without Biblical basis and still debated by the Vatican. The Church won’t pay my medical bills, or make up the loss when I can no longer be the breadwinner for my wonderful house husband, or find me affordable daycare. And yet, the Church calls me selfish for saying that I and my health and my talents matter more than a human life that doesn’t even exist. It isn’t selfish to say “I have much to offer the world, but nothing to give a child right now.” It is horrible to put women with chronic illnesses through the choice of bad sex or traumatic pregnancies.

  9. Thank you SO much for sharing your story. I am on the Pill now partly to control my cramps (which sent me to the hospital last period before I started it) and partly because NFP was driving me crazy. Literally. I have na anxiety disorder and some OCD and I just couldn’t stop obsessing. Add to that my husband really is a sex addict (recovering) so we have plentyvof issues around sex….

    I really appreciated what you said about not knowing what to believe. I can’t figure it out either and I feel a lot of guilt I don’t believe I deserve about the fact that I LOVE being on the pill. I love being able to decide if I really want sex or not instead of feelingnlike I “should” BC who knows how long it will be before we can again, or for my dh’s sake. I’m so glad to have found a place where real stories are being shared.

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